The Kosovo Failure Mission Impossible in the Balkans

For four months, three diplomats tried to get the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians to find a compromise agreement. Both sides, though, proved unwilling to budge. A look inside the failed negotiations.


It was a beautiful summer day in late July, and German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger was heading out for a well-deserved vacation. As he sped down the Autobahn toward the Austrian city of Salzburg, his phone rang. Ischinger picked up, thinking it was a friend he and his wife planned to meet to attend the production of "Everyman" at the Austrian city's famous culture festival. But he was wrong. The phone call marked the premature end of Ischinger's vacation -- and a temporary hiatus from his comparatively uncomplicated life as Germany's ambassador in London.

Kosovo Albanians are biding their time for now. But a declaration of independence is almost a certainty.

Kosovo Albanians are biding their time for now. But a declaration of independence is almost a certainty.

On the other end of the line was German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The two men had met many years before at the beginning of the administration under Gerhard Schröder; they trusted each other and were on a first-name basis. Wolfgang, Steinmeier said, getting right to the point, I'm about to make you an offer you cannot turn down. We are resuming the negotiations over Kosovo, and we would like to form a trio of negotiators, consisting of you, a Russian and an American. But instead of negotiating on behalf of our country alone, you will be the voice of all 27 members of the European Union. And because Kosovo is a European problem, you will also be the lead negotiator. Come to Berlin and we'll discuss the rest.

Although Steinmeier's offer came as a surprise to Ischinger -- after all, he was in vacation mode -- he also knew that the request was a great honor. It's rare that the European Union chooses a single diplomat to represent its interests. When it comes to the Middle East conflict or the Iranian nuclear program, the Germans always have a seat at the table, but so do other countries. Sometimes it's a preventative measure designed to ensure that Germany, Europe's dominant economic power, doesn't overshadow the prestige-hungry British, French and Italians. But despite their neighbors' fears, the truth is that the Germans have no qualms about being part of a collective endeavor.

Kosovo remains a part of Serbia. But for how long?

Kosovo remains a part of Serbia. But for how long?

Kosovo, though, is a different story. The war over the small, poor Serbian province in the spring of 1999 marked a turning point for German foreign policy. For the first time since its establishment in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany took part in an armed conflict. In radio and television interviews Ischinger, a deputy in the German Foreign Office at the time, argued that the war was justified. He was so convincing that he incurred the displeasure of his boss, then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Ischinger is intimately familiar with Kosovo and he knows exactly who the key players are.

Ten minutes after Steinmeier's call, Ischinger's phone rang again. This time it was Christoph Heusgen, Chancellor Angela Merkel's foreign policy advisor. He was calling to reiterate more officially what Steinmeier had just told him as a friend: The Chancellor would like you to be in charge of the negotiations, he said. Merkel also asked that he be careful to work closely with all 27 EU member states, Heusgen told Ischinger.

A Host of Conflicting Interests

It had been a difficult job convincing Javier Solana, the EU's head of foreign policy, to agree to Ischinger serving as chief negotiator. In Italy, President Romano Prodi would have preferred to see one of his close associates head up the negotiating team. Meanwhile, in Paris, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner considers himself the premier authority on issues relating to Kosovo. Kouchner was the province's international administrator between 1999 and 2001. His New Year's Eve appearance holding an olive branch on the bridge dividing the shattered town of Mitrovica has remained unforgotten as an amiable if slightly inappropriate gesture.

The British made it clear, in a roundabout way, that they considered too much eagerness to be detrimental. The Spaniards were concerned that EU support for Kosovo independence would send the wrong message to separatists in their own country. For Ischinger, this meant having to deal with several challenges and a host of conflicting interests.

The other two members of the trio of mediators were quickly appointed. One was Frank Wisner, a 69-year-old veteran US diplomat who has served as ambassador to both the Philippines and India. Wisner is related by marriage to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. His wife was previously married to Paul Sarkozy, the president's father. The Russians sent Alexander Bozan-Kharchenko, 50, a special envoy of Moscow's foreign ministry.

Each of the three men came to the table with instructions from their respective governments. The only problem was that these instructions differed. The American government favors independence for Kosovo. The Russian government, opposed to any changes in the status quo, wants to see Kosovo remain a Serbian province. Moscow, as a member of the UN Security Council, vetoed a comprehensive plan for Kosovo developed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, killing the proposal.

The Germans, for their part, wanted to make another effort to find agreement on Kosovo -- with the underlying goal that of getting all 27 members of the EU club to subscribe to a unified position. No exceptions -- a united Europe. That was the least that could be expected.

Ischinger, 61, seemed to be the ideal diplomat for tricky negotiations. He is adept at engaging adversaries and at expanding seemingly nonexistent options one millimeter at a time. When it comes to multinational crisis diplomacy, many senior German diplomats have a tendency to come on too strong -- a strategy learned in the old bipolar world. As a result, German diplomacy opens doors for politicians, though sometimes it becomes an end unto itself in which participants are doing little more than playing for time.

Complex Act of Diplomacy

Given the gloomy alternative -- a possible new wave of violence and killings in Kosovo and maybe even in Bosnia -- the Russians and the Americans agreed to a new round of negotiations intended to bring about a peaceful change in the status quo. It soon became apparent that the three mediators had been well chosen. Ischinger, Wisner and Bozan-Kharchenko refused to allow the talks to become mere show.

Time constraints created the necessary pressure. The trio submits its report to the UN Secretary General this Monday.

This left the three mediators with less than four months to complete an almost impossible mission, one that included tense and sometimes dramatic meetings with Serbs and ethnic Albanians -- meetings that often erupted in expressions of outrage and shouting matches. The prospect of a breakthrough would occasionally flare up -- always when the trio acted in unison. In the end, the effort -- a significant global event given the players involved -- yielded far more than the three mediators had hoped for initially. When looked at piece by piece, the talks present a portrait of a complex act of diplomacy.


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